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Trumping student politics

14 October 2016
Meet the student who flew across the world to feel the Bern

The United States presidential election has gripped the world with its intriguing personalities and intense political debate. As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dominate headlines with just weeks to go, Arts student Daniel Ergas reflects on his own experiences on the campaign front lines for former candidate Bernie Sanders.

Daniel Ergas has an easy familiarity about him, the kind that makes you feel you know him within a few minutes of meeting. It probably helps that his name and face have been splashed around campus over the past few years – as 2015 SRC Vice President, Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness presidential candidate, Honi campaigner and student rep on the Arts and Social Sciences’ faculty board, he hasn’t held back from getting involved in campus life.   

A self-proclaimed “boring person," he underplays his ambition, but it’s clear that the third year Bachelor of Arts student has a lot of drive. Last year, it saw him fly nearly 15,000 kilometres to campaign for a presidential candidate that, as an Australian, he couldn’t even vote for.

“I’ve always been interested in US politics – so much of what happens in Australian politics is determined by US politics,” Daniel says. “It really sets the tone for the political debate in Australia, and it really sets the parameters for what’s considered good and virtuous.”

“When I heard that Bernie Sanders was running, I got a list of all the people who were working there at the time, so 15 people or so, and I guessed that the email format would be ‘first-name@berniesanders.com’,” he admits. “And so I just was sort of spamming these people for two and a half months until they realised I’d be less trouble to hire than to ignore.”

At least for me, what makes an ideal leader is that you recognise that all of the achievements that you might be able to push for aren’t just yours – they’re the achievements of the people who you’ve worked with and the people who have helped put you in the position that you’re in.

We met with Daniel after he took part in a Sydney Ideas panel, an experience he described as “really fun, but very intimidating.” The event, which was co-hosted by the United States Studies Centre, tried to untangle what’s happening on the US election trail. After campaigning for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in Iowa for eight months, Daniel was able to offer an enviable insight into what the chaotic election process is really like on the ground.

“It was kind of like the West Wing on the day of the caucus, all of these phones were going off, these lawyers were running around the room looking nervous and stressed, and that was very fun – apart from that, it was much more mundane, it was a lot of long hours and a lot of folding purple t-shirts,” he says.

“But there’s nothing like watching a mid-50 year old farmer in Iowa personally interact with a presidential candidate and ask them the questions that matter to them. I think that’s something we could really take back to Australia – having a more meaningful connection with individuals who are typically locked out of the party systems.”

It’s a lesson that can be taken back to campus. As Daniel notes, the University is like “a little petri-dish for politics across Australia and certainly within certain political parties.” The challenge is ensuring that even those who aren’t overly involved in student politics feel empowered to create change. 

“I’d recommend getting involved with the Students' Representative Council, as it really is the organisation on campus that has pushed for a lot of the changes that make the University what it is now, and that’s kinda cool and exciting,” he says. “If you have an idea, then you should engage with the SRC’s collectives – they’re groups of students who are very passionate about issues relating to things like education, women’s rights and queer rights.”

Whether you’re a student leader or a presidential candidate, this collaboration is important. “At least for me, what makes an ideal leader is that you recognise that all of the achievements that you might be able to push for aren’t just yours – they’re the achievements of the people who you’ve worked with and the people who have helped put you in the position that you’re in.”

When asked, Daniel was happy to say he would be celebrating the US election on campus at the University of Sydney’s Manning Bar for rolling CNN coverage of the presidential election results.  There’ll also be live crosses to other US election hubs in Canberra, Perth and Sydney throughout the day. Manning Bar will provide an authentic election party atmosphere in which to watch the votes come in.

Regardless of what happens in November’s US elections, the key to understanding international relations and global culture is an understanding of the United States.

The Master of US Studies offers preparation for an international career, with exclusive placements working for research think-tanks, the American Chamber of Commerce and American Senators; as well as an understanding of a new globalised world by investigating the intersection of culture, politics, foreign policy, media and military – with the United States as a central case study.